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Photo from Karen Pavlansky

The anthropologist invited the children from the African tribe to play one game. He placed a basket of fruit near the tree and announced, addressing the children: “The one of you who reaches the tree first will be rewarded with all sweet fruits.” When he signaled to the children to start the race, they locked their hands tightly and ran together, and then they all sat together and enjoyed the delicious fruit.

The astonished anthropologist asked the children why they all ran together, because each of them could enjoy the fruit for himself. To which the children replied: “Obonato”. Is it possible for one to be happy if everyone else is sad? “Obonato” in their language means: “I exist because we exist.” — Karen Pavlansky


“America is in even greater danger because of its cult of toughness, its hatred of sensitivity, and someday it may have to pay a price for this, because atrophy of feeling creates criminals.” — From the Diary of Anais Nin

I grew up in the United States with five siblings and two parents all trying to survive in a culture that has made a cult out of insensitivity. One of my brothers became a rancher who sent his cattle to feedlots. Another brother aspired to be an artist but was so full of rage and insecurities he caused his own death before he could get started. We all had our own reactions to American culture, our own strategies to try to survive. Those who lacked an artistic nature struggled in their own way to live and love in Texas of the 1950’s.

My father aspired to write but burdened himself with a big family and debt before he was able to get started. He spent the rest of his life in business. That life put its arms around him and didn’t let go until he died. My mother was able to spend several decades painting after the children grew up and left home.

I aspired to be a writer or actor when I was young, but when my older brother died I was given his art materials and discovered I had a feeling for it. I spent the next fifty years painting and sculpting.

Artistic creation requires you to develop your sensitivity both to your craft and to the world. An artist spends a lot of time looking and listening. It’s good training for how to see and love the world, something our education and social conditioning fails to do. Even if you don’t become a professional artist, it’s an excellent way to experience your connections with life. You learn that the world operates differently than the cliched cultural ideas you’ve been given.

Our culture assumes separateness. It has an every-man-for himself assumption that instills a loneliness and sense of abandonment in us. We become neurotic just from growing up cut off from ourselves. Our sense of love and empathy is atrophied without our realizing it.

Knowing something was missing, I went searching in other cultures. I was attracted to languages and cultures where the arts and poetry took up more space. I liked languages that had an esthetic appeal to my ear. I was chasing sensitivity that way.

Of course, I discovered that those cultures weren’t everything I imagined. I saw cruelty there too, but I became more extroverted, less withdrawn than I had been. Living outside my native culture allowed me to find and awaken a part of me that couldn’t manage to come alive otherwise. The sensitivity I was searching for came in surprising ways, for example, palate sensitivity, which is so developed in France.

Every culture has it’s focus. The American focus on “success” never seemed sufficient to build a life on. Something else was needed in my case. Connection, beauty, meaning and the arts congealed around my search to have a life that engaged my deepest self.

Having said all that, I’m quite happy to be American. The kind of American I am is fine. I just want to keep learning along the path of sensitivity, going where it leads. My way is probably not your way. That’s as it should be.

I found a good way for me. May you find a good way for you.

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